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Picturing Black History, Part 4: Movements for Civil Rights and Black Power

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Read Time: 21 min

Welcome back to this five-part series, where we're exploring the history of people of African ancestry in the United States through archival photography.

In part three of this series we looked at images from The Great Migration and the resulting Black Cultural Renaissance. As we noted, The Great Migration not only changed the lives of people of African ancestry and the wider social and political landscape of America, but also shifted African Americans' self-perception and forged a new identity rooted in a greater social consciousness. It also promoted a stronger sense of pride and a greater quest for self-determination. This newfound sense of power led to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, which we will explore today. 

The Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement was the name for the struggle of African Americans to relieve themselves from the crushing inequalities and indignities inflicted by the Jim Crow Segregation system in the southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Its main goal was to gain the same equal rights and protection under the law for African Americans the were afforded Americans everywhere. 

I am a Man (Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, 1968) (printed 1993). Gelatin silver print by Ernest Withers/St. Lawrence University Archives.

The movement was driven by a collection of African American organizations, most notably:

  • The NAACP's Legal department, headed by Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall
  • The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
  • The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

Their goal was to activate against the "separate but equal" doctrine (expressed in the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson) and they organized nonviolent demonstrations to call attention to the injustice of Jim Crow Segregation.

Major Turning Points of the Civil Rights Movement

Let's take a look at the photographic legacy of this critical period in African American and American History by focusing on its major turning points. 

Desegregating the Military

1948: Executive Order Abolishes Racial Segregation in the Military

By the early 1940s, war-related work was booming, but most African Americans weren’t able to access the better paying jobs in war related industries. In 1941, after thousands of African Americans threatened to march on Washington to demand equal employment rights, on June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802. It opened national defence jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, colour or national origin.

Once the US entered the war, even though African Americans were eager to support their country in the military, they were actively discouraged from joining a military that was racially segregated. Many did join, however, and despite suffering segregation and discrimination during deployment they served heroically.

Photograph of several Tuskegee airmen at Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945 by Toni Frissell/Library of Congress.

In fact, one of the major accomplishments in relation to the war effort effort came from The Tuskegee Airmen, who become the first African American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

In spite of their loyal service, when these veterans returned home they were treated with scorn and violence. The hypocrisy of a country entering a war to defend freedom and democracy in the world, but treating its own citizens with contempt and degradation was not lost on many, and in 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to end racial segregation in the military. This victory helped African Americans on both legally and psychologically in their quest for full civil rights.

Desegregating Education

1954: Brown v. Board of Education 

Understanding the potent role of education could have in the lives of African Americans, white southerners did everything they could to prevent both enslaved Africans and emancipated African Americans from receiving an education. African American schools during Jim Crow Segregation were severely underfunded, under staffed and under resourced. To their disappointment, African Americans often found when they moved north that they were isolated in communities with similarly underfunded and de facto racially segregated schools.

So when black residents Leola and Oliver Brown found themselves living next to a well-funded public elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, it made sense for them to enrol their daughter there. The only problem was that Kansas elementary schools were racially segregated, and the school insisted that he enrolled his daughter Linda at the segregated black elementary school farther away.

The Browns joined with twelve other African American families in similar situations and filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court against the Topeka Board of Education charging that its segregation policy was unconstitutional.

The case, championed by NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, went all the way to the Supreme Court, in a decision which became known as Brown v. Board of Education. The Court's decision partially overruled an earlier ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, by stating that "separate but equal"  was unconstitutional for American public schools and educational institutions. This was a major victory of the civil rights movement as it paved the way for integration and became a model for many future major cases. 

1957: The Little Rock Nine and the Central High School Integration

Though the Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education had ruled segregation illegal in public schools, the south, ruled by the brutality of Jim Crow, clung to segregation and governments dragged out and delayed integrating the schools. When the Supreme Court tried to force integration with a second landmark decision, the Little Rock, Arkansas school board decided it would integrate its schools over a period of many years, starting with its Central High School. They asked for volunteers from all-black high schools to attend the formerly segregated all-white school.

U.S. Troops escort African American students from Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, October 3, 1957./Library of Congress

Nine African American students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, volunteered and arrived at Central High School to begin classes only to be met by a screaming, threatening mob and the Arkansas National Guard, who had been ordered by the Governor to block their entry to the school. Failing to gain entry to the school, The Little Rock Nine tried again three weeks later and made it inside, but had to be removed for their safety when violence ensued.

Little Rock, 1959. Rally at State Capitol Against School Desegregation by John T. Bledsoe./Library of Congress

Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine to and from classes at Central High. During their school year the students reported constant harassment and suffering both verbal and physical violence. After the first year of school integration at Central High, rather than allow integration to continue, in 1958 the Governor of Arkansas closed all Little Rock, Arkansas public high schools for one year, leaving almost 4,000 black and white students without access to public education.

1960: Ruby Bridges and the New Orleans School Integration

Integration took place unevenly across the country. In New Orleans, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became famous for integrating the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School.

Source: United States Department of Justice replace me

Ruby Bridges had to be escorted to school every day of the school year by armed federal marshals to protect her from the angry mobs gathered outside, and she studied in an empty classroom because the other parents had removed their children from the school in protest. 

Desegregating Transportation

1955: Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

15 year old Claudette Colvin and three classmates were travelling home from school by bus in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, when the all too familiar order came from the driver to vacate a row of seats to accommodate a white woman who had just gotten on the bus. Her three friends moved, but having been inspired by a lesson in school on African American heroines like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, she refused to give up her seat, telling the police who came to arrest her that she knew her constitutional rights. She was roughly removed from the bus and arrested.

Left: Rosa Parks being Fingerprinted/Library of Congress Right: Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat at 15/WikiCommons

This was nine months before 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger and was also arrested.

Inspired by Rosa Parks, Community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), led by Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., and staged a boycott of the Montgomery bus system which lasted 381 days.

During this time, lawyers filed a federal lawsuit including Claudette Colvin and three other women—Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith—who had also experienced similar mistreatment on the bus. The case—Browder v. Gayle—challenged the constitutionality of Montgomery's segregation laws.

A three-judge panel ruled in their favour in June, and in November 14, 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision, ruling that segregated seating was unconstitutional.

1961: Freedom Rides

On May 4, 1961, 13 “Freedom Riders” set out to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which had decided that segregation of interstate transportation facilities was unconstitutional. This group of seven Black and six white activists took a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C. with the intention of touring the American south and ignoring segregation edicts at bus terminals. 

The Freedom Riders faced violence from both police officers and white protesters that drew international attention. After a bus they were travelling in was bombed in Alabama and the escaping activists were badly beaten, the group could not find a bus driver to take them further.

A mob of racists beats Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A., FBI/National Endowment for the Humanities

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy reached an agreement with Alabama Governor to find a driver, and the Freedom Riders resumed their journey with police escort on May 20. However, once they reached Montgomery, the police escorts left the group and a white mob brutally attacked the bus. Responding to both the riders and a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., Attorney General Kennedy sent federal marshals to Montgomery.

When the group reached Jackson, Mississippi, they were arrested for trespassing in a “whites-only” facility and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Attorneys for the NAACP brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the convictions. Hundreds of new Freedom Riders joined cause, and the rides continued.

In autumn 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission, under pressure from the Kennedy government, issued regulations preventing segregation in interstate transit terminals.

Desegregating Cafes and Restaurants

1960: The Greensboro Four and Sit-Ins

On February 1, 1960, four college students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and refused to leave without being served. The official policy was to refuse service to anyone but whites. Denied service, the four young men refused to give up their seats and stayed put until the store closed. They returned the next day with more students from local colleges and over the next several days, hundreds of people joined their cause in what became known as the Greensboro sit-ins.

Protest by clergy./ Library of Congress

After some were arrested and charged with trespassing, protesters launched a boycott of all segregated lunch counters until the owners caved and the original four students were finally served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter where they’d first stood their ground. Their efforts helped launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to encourage all students to get involved in the civil rights movement. 

Marching for Justice

1963: Birmingham Demonstrations

In the spring of 1963, the SCLC, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launched a campaign of sit-ins, economic boycotts, mass protests, and marches on City Hall in Birmingham, Alabama, in conjunction with local Christian and labour union groups, that was designed to undermine the city’s system of racial segregation. 

Police blast protesters with a water canon, Birmingham, by Charles Moore/WikiCommons

With the jails filling up with peaceful protesters, the extremely antagonistic commissioner of public safety, Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, ordered the police and fire department to set high-pressure water hoses and attack dogs on the protesters. The violent tactics against peaceful demonstrators went on for days, gaining national attention, and the negative media prompted President John F. Kennedy to advance a civil rights bill on the 11th June.

Though the Birmingham campaign eventually negotiated an agreement with local reforms, tensions remained high in the city, and the meeting places of civil rights activists were continually threatened, with a bombing on September 15th at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young African American girls.

1963 march on the Capitol, view of the marchers and Washington Monument1963 march on the Capitol, view of the marchers and Washington Monument1963 march on the Capitol, view of the marchers and Washington Monument
Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.: a wide-angle view of marchers along the mall, showing the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument./National Archives

1963: March on Washington

One of the most famous events of the civil rights movement took place on August 28, 1963: the March on Washington, organized and attended by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders.

Civil Rights March on Washington by Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

More than 200,000 people of all races congregated in Washington, D. C. for the peaceful march, aimed at creating new civil rights legislation and job equality for all. The highlight of the march was King’s “I have a dream…” speech which galvanized the national civil rights movement and became a slogan for equality and freedom.

  Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco Cow Palace  Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco Cow Palace  Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco Cow Palace
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at interfaith civil rights rally, San Francisco Cow Palace, June 30 1964, by George Conklin/Flickr.

Marching for Voting Rights

1965: Selma-Montgomery March

Even though the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave African Americans the right to vote all the way back in 1870, southern governments, understanding the power that African Americans could wield if they voted en masse, used intimidation and discriminatory voter registration requirements that made it all but impossible for African Americans to fully use their right to participate.

The federal government responded with several laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting, and created a commission to investigate voter fraud. Then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal employment for all, limited the use of voter literacy tests, and allowed federal authorities to ensure public facilities were integrated. However, enforcing these laws against the wishes of resistant southern governments proved quite challenging. 

Marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 by Peter Pettus/Library of Congress

On 7 March, 1965, Dr. King led a march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery, to ask for federal voting rights laws that would provide legal support for the disenfranchised in the South. State troopers, at the behest of the Alabama Governor, viciously beat and teargassed the protesters, and scores were hospitalized. The horror was televised and became known as “Bloody Sunday”.

On March 9, King tried again, leading more than 2,000 marchers to the Pettus Bridge, where they again encountered a barricade of state troopers. The media attention motivated President Johnson to introduce voting rights legislation on 15 March. On March 21 King once again led a group of marchers out of Selma; this time, they were protected by Alabama National Guardsmen, federal marshals, and FBI agents. Marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 25, where King addressed the crowd with what would be called his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

African American demonstrators outside the White House | Source: Warren Leffler, Library of Congress

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It sought to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, to secure the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South, and directed the attorney general of the United States to challenge the use of poll taxes for state and local elections. The new law also banned all voter literacy tests and provided federal examiners in certain voting jurisdictions. Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections.

Desegregating Love

1967: Loving v. Virginia

When Richard Loving—a white man—and  Mildred Jeter—a woman of African and Native American ancestry—discovered that they were going to have a baby, the long-time couple decided it was time to get married. There was just one problem: they lived in one of the 24 states in the USA that had laws strictly prohibiting marriage between people of different races.

To avoid Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the couple went instead to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony, but when they returned to Virginia they were arrested and found guilty of violating the Act. They avoided a year in jail by agreeing to leave the state of Virginia and not return as husband and wife for 25 years.

Once settled in Washington, D.C., the couple approached the American Civil Liberties Union to fight their case in court. They filed suit in a Virginia state court in 1963 and, after an extensive legal battle, in June of 1967 the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, thus striking down Jim Crow Segregation laws against interracial marriage.

Desegregating Housing 

From 1919 to 1980, the total Black population in America’s urban centres had increased by millions. During this same period, white Americans steadily moved out of the cities into the suburbs, taking many of the employment opportunities into communities where African Americans were not welcome to live. 

This trend, combined with federal as well as private discriminatory practices of redlining and predatory lending, led to the growth in urban America of inner city communities with high minority populations that were plagued by dilapidated housing, unemployment and crime.

Despite Supreme Court decisions which outlawed the exclusion of African Americans or other minorities from certain sections of cities, race-based housing patterns were still in force by the late 1960s. Those who confronted them were often met with hostility and sometimes violence. 

Fair housing protest, Seattle, Washington, 1964, confronting racial discrimination in housing sales. From the Seattle Municipal Archives/WikiCommons

Since his visit north to participate in marches in Chicago calling for open housing in that city, Dr. King had been associated with the fight for fair housing. Organizations such as the the NAACP and the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing also asked for new fair housing legislation to be passed.

Unfortunately, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis before he could see legislation enacted to address the problem of housing discrimination, but in in 1968 the Fair Housing Act was passed. It expanded on previous acts and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended) handicap and family status. 

The Rise of the Black Power Movement

While Dr. King's work was mostly focused on desegregating the South, African Americans in the north had their own share of problems. As mentioned before, they were mostly crammed into economically deprived communities with poor housing, underfunded schools and rampant crime.

The Black Power movement was a social movement in the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized racial pride, economic empowerment, and the creation of political and cultural institutions that promoted African American self-determination. There was demand for courses on black history and literature, a greater appreciation for African culture and aesthetic, and a celebration of African Americans' artistic talent.

Black Power Buttons Black Power Buttons Black Power Buttons
Black Power buttons/The Smithsonian

'Black Power' was initially coined by Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture. Carmichael joined the SNCC during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to register Black voters in Mississippi, participated in the Freedom Rides, and later became the chair of the SNCC. However the movement was influenced more by Malcolm X, who believed that his fellow African Americans needed to protect themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary,” a position that often put the movement at odds with the nonviolent teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Black Panther Party

The tone of the freedom struggle shifted in the late 1960s. The urban riots of 1964 and 1965—a result, two commissions found, of contending with racism, discrimination, poor housing, schools, and job prospects—and 1965 assasination of Malcom X ignited the movements which coalesced into the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in October 1966 in Oakland, California. Their mission was to protect African American neighbourhoods from police brutality and to promote community empowerment from within. They promoted self-reliance, cultural pride, and a more coordianted response to white violence.

The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutalityThe racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutalityThe racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality
"The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality" | Source: Library of Congress

Black Panther programs confronted the economic problems of African Americans, which the Party argued the civil rights reforms did not do enough to address. Black Panther activists founded Black-owned bookstores, food cooperatives, farms, media, printing presses, schools, legal aid, transportation assistance, clinics and ambulance services and numerous community programs that offered services to poor people. These activities created a deeper sense of empowerment and self-determination within the African Americans community than they had ever known and ignited the confidence to build a life within America, independent of white America.

The federal government would not have it. FBI's counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, branded the Black Panthers as a communist organization and carried out a covert nationwide program to infiltrate, create factional splits within the party, and stir up bloody warfare between members and factions.


The Civil Rights Movement succeed in overturning Jim Crow Segregation and improving the conditions of life for African Americans in the south, and to a lesser extent the north. It paved the way for equal access to housing, jobs, and education and the right to vote, but as African Americans were to find, the journey towards equal citizenship and social justice was not over.

The Black Power Movement raised Africa Americans' self-respect, self-love and sense of self-efficacy to new heights. Had it been allowed to continue, who knows where African Americans would be today. Unfortunately, it was too short lived to know. It did, however, leave a legacy of resistance to white supremacy in its myriad forms that has proved critical to African American survival. 

If you've missed the earlier parts of this series, please check out:

In the rest of this series, we'll look at photographs from the following periods:

Must-See Collections

If you want to learn more about black history through photography, explore some of these wonderful archives:

1. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Explore over 300,000 images in this section of the New York Public Library system that's dedicated to black history.

2. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds millions of photographs, books, newspapers and other documents that can help you explore any area of black history that interests you.

4. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum itself is well worth a visit when Covid-19 allows, but in the meantime, you can explore the museum's digital archives on its website.

5. National Archives

The U.S. National Archives contain a wealth of historic photographs, including a special section on African American history.

Additional Educational Resources

While there's still a long way to go, there's no denying the lasting impact the Civil Rights era had on United States society. Here are some resources for classroom and personal education about this moment in history.

1. American Experience - Freedom Riders

We touched on the bravery of the Freedom Riders in this article, but it's hard to capture their full experience in a few paragraphs. This documentary does a great job of telling, and showing, the different stories through firsthand accounts and period footage. Watch the first part above.

2. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States

There are many landmark Supreme Court cases during the 60s that helped combat segregation and discrimination on a legal level. Some, like Loving v Virginia and Brown v. Board of Education, are widely known. But this lesser talked about case also had a significant impact in breaking down barriers for African Americans.

3. Mob Marching From Capitol to Central High

Photographs can reveal a lot if you're willing to give them the time. To help students understand this, use this lesson from the Library of Congress about finding the story behind the picture.

4. Black Panthers' Free Breakfast for School Children Program

Part of the Black Panthers' efforts in their community was to feed local children. Read more about the program's history from the link above. 50 years on, The Guardian chronicled the celebration of the start of the initiative with former members.

5. The Civil Rights Era, Documented

Get more context of various Civil Rights events with historical images and documents from the Library of Congress.

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